Mad Max: Fury Road is a tale of milk and blood.
A continuation of the post-apocalyptic Mel Gibson franchise from the 1980s, including the brilliant Mad Max: The Road Warrior, this installment hands Tom Hardy the title role, then cleverly sidelines him. It turns out that Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie about women, who figure here both as angels of life and agents of death. As such, it doesn’t have a lot of room for its grumbling male antihero.
Truth be told, the movie doesn’t have much room for anything other than a series of terrifically staged and maniacally thrilling chase scenes – conducted, as all these films have been, by director George Miller. I could provide a plot description for Fury Road, or I could simply say that it races from Point A to Point B, pauses briefly to catch its breath, then roars wildly back from Point B to A. It’s an exercise in linear loonyness.
Still, here are the details. The movie begins with Max held captive by a terrifyingly cruel warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne from the original Mad Max, wearing a gas mask that makes him look like a human variation on the alien in Predator). High atop a wasteland plateau, Immortan Joe has diverted what little water there is to his crops at the top; he reigns over the worshipful rabble below by occasionally releasing gushes of water. His rocky palace is something of a deranged Valhalla, where women’s breast milk is pumped by machines to be traded as a commodity. He also has a harem of young wives, some of whom are pregnant in hopes of continuing his family line.
And Max? He’s a “blood bag,” a living donor for one of Immortan Joe’s ailing acolytes, named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Tied by a chain to Nux, with a tube of blood continually flowing to his captor, Max is dragged everywhere Nux goes – including on a crazed race to capture a rogue tanker driver who has smuggled Immortan Joe’s wives in a truck and is tearing away toward the horizon.
There’s something distinct – something more felt, human and authentic – about the way the weariness registers on Theron’s face and body.
The driver, named Imperator Furiosa, is played by Charlize Theron, and with all due respect to Hardy – who gives Max a fearsomely brute desperation – this is Theron’s movie. It’s not that she “outmans” everyone else (although she’s awfully impressive in an early fight scene that makes clever use of Max’s tormenting chain). Rather, Theron’s Furiosa weathers the movie’s various storms with a palpable sense of hurt, whether it’s the literal sand storm that swallows the action at one point or the relentless waves of attacks on her truck. I’d be tempted to call her screen presence feminine, if that weren’t so loaded an adjective these days. Instead I’ll just say there’s something distinct – something more felt, human and authentic – about the way the exhaustion, weariness and woundedness registers on Theron’s face and body, especially compared to the way it does with so many stoic male action stars, Hardy included.
Indeed, Theron is the stalwart center of a movie that mostly consists of mayhem. Aside from that unfortunately CGI-heavy storm, though, this is expertly controlled mayhem, the sort of zen chaos that defined the Fast and Furious franchise and puts a priority on clarity and control. One of the more inventive sequences involves attacking cars with 30-yard poles attached to their hoods. One of Immortan Joe’s feral followers, most of whom are covered in a ghostly, ghastly white paste, balances at the end, and as the car pulls alongside Furiosa’s truck, the pole lowers toward it so that he can leap aboard. In the midst of battle, Max finds himself on a pole at one point, and the resulting gymnastics play something like a Lord of the Rings sequence as directed by Buster Keaton.
Anchoring such scenes are the very brief moments of respite, during which Max and Furiosa debate – well, grunt – over whether having hope in this brutal world is only opening yourself up to further despair. Which brings me back to milk and blood. You could argue that milk symbolizes hope – nourishment – while blood is a symbol of despair. Returning from a brief (and wittily left offscreen) skirmish with his head covered in blood, Max walks up to a spout on the truck and asks what’s in it. “Mother’s milk,” Furiosa replies. He pauses for a second, opens the spigot and lets the white liquid wash the blood away. If Mad Max: Fury Road has a defining image, that’s it.